The Frugal Repast

The Frugal Repast
Art: Stella Shannon

Art by Stella Shannon.

Self-Portrait

Dear Oscar, I wrote an entire failed book chapter last fall, the fall when we met, about William Hazlitt’s concept of gusto, but it turns out that my writing on it was a mistake. It was a mistake because no matter how many words I wrote, I couldn’t get any of them to move. They stood in place, in time, even, right there on the page, and that’s when I knew I had taken the wrong approach entirely. And I want you to know this now, I guess, because if you ever read it you might get a bad idea – a bad impression. You might disagree with Hazlitt and think that things don’t move after all, Oscar, when they absolutely do, and if you don’t believe me I want you to look up Titian’s Self-Portrait right now and study carefully the painter’s ear. It will hurt to look long at the folds, at the lobe that gives way to staticky black. It will hurt because the ear is operating on you, and you’ll recognize, too late, that you never even had a choice. Dear Oscar, when I think about radiance, hunched over my desk in the apartment on West 100th or at the corner booth at Café Amrita on 110th, I think about Titian’s ear, and I want you to have it (it being the ear) at this juncture, this juncture being the one where everything is just starting to make sense.

*

The Dream of the Shepherd

Dear Oscar, in 1914, Ferdinand Hodler penned a letter to his friend, the writer Hans Mühlestein, chronicling the physical decline of his mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel: “This beautiful head, this whole body, like a Byzantine empress on the mosaics of Ravenna – and this nose, this mouth – and the eyes, they too, those wonderful eyes – all these the worms will eat. And nothing will remain, absolutely nothing!” A year later, Godé-Darel died, and the Swiss artist created a series of oil paintings depicting her on her deathbed. Dear Oscar, I posit for myself no sanctimonious role here of féministe resurrector. We are all always taking what isn’t ours. Season 3, episode 6 of The Sopranos, which we watched one early morning after the kind of encounter that left me thinking about circles – how we were always going in them or around them or miraculously, through them – proves this. I told you as such, that morning punctuated by a sequence of ambulances roaring down Amsterdam. I told you that Meadow Soprano was my favorite character but that my love for her wasn’t an easy one, that the prostitute was murdered, after all, for her, that she survives her own sexual becoming not in spite of the violently uneven niches women must occupy in mafia machinery but because of them. Dear Oscar, I was prepared to make this argument once, but honestly when I think again of Hodler I end up thinking of you in bed, uncovered, which is magic, and which my line of vision is, thankfully, fundamentally incapable of transmuting into dust, which is of course always already what happens when a man looks at a woman, dead or dying or not.

*

Whalers

Dear Oscar, when I look at this painting of Turner’s I become someone I met a long time ago, a woman in a dream within a dream who lived by the sea and made large baskets out of seaweed in order to carry a seemingly infinite number of crab shells in her possession. When she ran out of coconut meat, the woman would take a shell and carefully grind it into a fine powder, which she then mixed with saltwater, a concoction that kept her – however uneasily – alive until her scavenging efforts were rewarded with greater success. Dear Oscar, the woman in the dream within a dream is hospitable. She offers me a taste of this strange provision of hers, and without fail I am too afraid to try it. I worry that the ground bits of shell will coalesce in my abdomen, and, sensing the reconfiguration of its long lost home, a crab will find its way inside. At this exact moment of reckoning the dream within the dream evaporates, leaving only one layer of dream, which often seemingly bears no relation to the woman who lives by the sea, who I visit unwillingly but who nevertheless bids me no harm when I arrive on her shores. Dear Oscar, I want the month of August back.

*

The Forest at Pontaubert

Dear Oscar, when we met I had been trying to write for some time about the erotics of the art encounter, but I decided to stop and commit the pattern of the creases in your bottom lip to memory instead. I did this out of no sense of love (we will, perhaps, return to that). I looked in the first place because I knew it would be important to my work, because, in fact, I knew that the looking would be the closest I’d ever get to putting my hands inside a Georges Seaurat painting. The thing is, it’s already working. Last week, when Mel at Café Amrita gave me my whiskey sour, sans cherry, I recalled very suddenly a panel of some kind (whether I actually presented in front of this panel or whether I simply dreamed at one point that I had done so is beside the point, you’ll see). The members of this panel were very invested in my answering a question involving the museum as moratorium – they repeated this phrase many times, the “museum as moratorium.” I did not understand the question, either in real life or in dreaming, but I do now, and it’s all because of you – because of you I might have even unriddled the great mystery of being, which I am beginning to think has something to do with the carefully policed boundary between viewer and viewed. It is, after all, unbearable, the kind of green Seaurat delivers, knowing full well we cannot devour it. We cannot even caress it. Dear Oscar, I took a single sip of that whiskey sour, left a ten on the table and ran down Central Park West until I reached the plastic barrels outside the park entrance on 96th, and when I got there I vomited the kind of vomit that takes everything, even the idea of itself, and replaces it all with a thin white snow in June at the intersection of 96th and Central Park West. Dear Oscar, that snow was like stardust.

*

Basin Street

Dear Oscar, nothing is known of Remo Farruggio, aside from the fact that he was born in Palermo and died in Provincetown and in between he invented empty space. I mean this very sincerely. Prior to Farruggio’s birth, or, more specifically, to his becoming as an artist of real import, men of letters took out their telescopes and other strange, even unspeakable objects. With these, they sketched different kinds of emptiness, from the first visible black hole to the distance between each particle of lead comprising their own written names on torn pieces of parchment. But when Farruggio began his project, they shrugged. There was nothing else to do or say. The internet and the analog archive, tasked with cataloguing this unbearable discovery, did exactly what one would expect: they made a gap of their own, a gap precisely the size of the streets in a Farruggio painting. It was for the best, the technologists of the internet and the analog archive agreed. And so this is why nothing is known of Remo Farruggio, aside from the fact that he was born in Palermo and died in Provincetown and in between he invented empty space. There was nothing else to do or say.

*

Fish Market

Dear Oscar, I sat down to write you a story in so many words, but the life of Joachim Beuckelaer begins and ends with maybe. It is possible. Perhaps. Allegedly. I can say this: when Joachim was a boy in Antwerp, he often went to the River Scheldt by the North Sea, his pockets filled with mud and other buzzing things. Sometimes his brother, Huybrecht, accompanied him, and the two children engaged in many heart-stopping duels of body and mind by the river weeds. On one such afternoon, Joachim and Huybrecht made their most daring deal yet. Whichever boy could catch a fish in the waters down below using only his own two hands would win the right to their aunt Kathelijne, a beautiful woman who dyed her long tresses with the hard red berries every child in Antwerp was warned not to eat. The brothers had just assumed their positions along the river bank when a mild storm came to pass, and the boys fled, sensing trouble. Dear Oscar, it is not known precisely why Joachim and Huybrecht left the river bank, but there exist at least two distinct possibilities. The first is that they feared punishment from their mother for staying out in the rain, and the second is that, primed for their prey, they realized that they did not know which outcome would be worse: for the other boy to have Kathelijne, or to possess her himself. The following spring, Katheleijne married Pieter, a craftsman from a neighboring village, and Joachim, confronted suddenly with the finality of his choice to forgo the fish, cried and cried, his hair tossed with river mist for the occasion, and that is all that is known for certain about the boy painter from Antwerp.

*

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Dear Oscar, Jackson Pollock wanted to say something and it killed him, so I’ve resigned myself to searching what does pure language mean on Quora.com and allowing the replies to speak for themselves. One interesting thing is that many users interpreted my query as related to computer programming languages, which was not what I was looking for in the first place but turned out to be even better. Here’s what I found. Because I cannot understand these languages in the traditional sense, I knew I had to find some other way to read even the most basic equations. I spent a great deal of time looking at them, but they kept not making sense. In fact, they were doing that thing that words and numbers sometimes do where it actually feels like they are not making sense on purpose. I kept thinking and hoping that the key to my understanding would be a visual one; for example, that the shape and size and typeface of an “x” or “z” would somehow lend itself to my interpretation of its mathematical or programmatic function. I kept doing this, but then it occurred to me that perhaps such a feat would require a long-lost or else still-undiscovered methodology of reading, and that discovery, Oscar, is better than every attempt I’ve ever made to say something combined, because the latter feels like scoliosis and the former like my hands are moving in the dark, touching the all that is there and the all that is not.

*

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress

Dear Oscar, as a collector of subjects I can tell you there is none so powerful as the hated wife. For example, Cézanne disowned Marie-Hortense Fiquet but continued to paint her. He painted her twenty seven times, not including the hidden portraits, which we imagine probably exist but will likely never possess. The critics call her Mona Lisa with a scowl, but Oscar, I think this is unfair. Marie was simply unsure. A crime nonetheless but a different one. In truth, there was little Marie could agree upon, and the burden of this chronic indecision – or else a continual deciding and then deciding again – manifested in the stroke, in the look that ultimately declined to register anything, even blankness. Cézanne tried to paint it out at first but even he knew that he had to wait until his wife left. The hated wife is a spectacular subject but not a perfect one. After she took the train to Paris as she had said she would do, the artist suffered a brief bout of mania and could be heard some cool nights skidding stones across the pavement in front of the Aix Cathedral. He did not know that he knew that he would paint again. Dear Oscar, Cézanne realized that only in Marie’s unyielding absence could he paint clearly the solemness of her hands, but the story does not end there because when a wife is hated she is cautious with her demands. In other words, she waits. And so, when the painter died Marie took the many thousands of Francs from the sale of his studio to Monaco, where she gambled them away alone one evening, her dress and the walls and the ashtray and everything red.

*

The Frugal Repast

Dear Oscar, I want to tell you about bespeckled geraniums in the Park in late spring, how they are constantly being made and unmade in the hour between the first train’s departure from Katonah to Wall Street and the inaugural cup of coffee drunk by a man who lives, alone with his collection of permanent markers, in a rent-controlled studio between Amsterdam and 86th. He had a wife once, or at least he believes that he did, but he cannot presently find any photographs of her, and so he has taken to printing large traceable portraits of aloof lovers at the public library branch on Columbus. These he takes back to his building and, after braving six flights of stairs (each taking approximately two to three minutes to ascend), copies onto white poster boards that he purchases at the Duane Reade for a dollar fifty. I would like to tell this and more, Oscar, but after beginning I realized the unsuitability of presenting to you a willful aesthetics of unmemory. But no matter. The night after the day I first presumed to have lost you, I either dreamed or believed that I dreamed that a man wearing a bright orange baret stopped me on the street in SoHo and slipped a folded piece of paper into my left back pocket. The paper had been folded an inexplicable number of times, and so it took a few minutes to unfold it completely, but once I did I realized that it contained a note: Hungarian Pastry Shop, 8 pm. And so I either went or dreamed that I went or believed that I dreamed that I went to the Hungarian Pastry Shop that evening at eight, but when I arrived at the designated time I saw that the café was deserted, aside from an old man who was writing in a slim blue notebook and sipping hot tea through a straw. Dear Oscar, the note meant nothing at all, and I cried of relief and ordered an Americano to go and then I left.

Caroline Fernelius

Caroline Fernelius is a writer from Texas. Her work has appeared in Storyscape Journal and the Middle West Review, among others. She presently lives in Ann Arbor, where she is working on a PhD in English.

Caroline Fernelius is a writer from Texas. Her work has appeared in Storyscape Journal and the Middle West Review, among others. She presently lives in Ann Arbor, where she is working on a PhD in English.

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